Electric Vehicle Charging: Is It Really Such A Big Problem?
There has been a lot of talk recently about a study published in Nature last week, which surveyed Californian EV owners and found that one in five went back to internal combustion after bad experiences with electric. Their chief reason was the hassle of charging. This has of course been picked up by journalistic publications as evidence that EVs are problematic. However, there are some obvious issues with the reasoning, and the study on which it is based. Charging an EV publicly is more hassle than putting fuel in an internal combustion car, but is it really such a dealbreaker?
First, let’s address that study. Yes, it was published in Nature, one of the most respected academic journals in the world. But dig a little deeper, and you will see that most of the data was from 2015-2018, with just one final survey at the end of 2019. While the number of fossil fuel stations is falling, the number of public EV charging stations is growing fast. For example, in Q1 2020 alone the US EV charging network had grown by 7.6% over Q4 2019, and the majority of that was in chargers able to deliver 50kW or more, known as DC Fast in the US and Rapid in the UK.
Things are moving quickly in the EV world, and unfortunately in the world of peer-reviewed academic journals they move quite slowly. The data in the Nature article is already starting to be out of date, even though it was published last week. Taking the UK as an example, because the figures are readily available from Zap-Map, there were 25% more chargers in 2017 than 2016, 35% more in 2018 than 2017, 54% more in 2019 than 2018, 24% more in 2020 than 2019, and already by 1st May 2021, 12% more than there were in 2020. The growth is phenomenal. It does need to be, to keep up with the growth in EV sales, which in the UK were up 185.9% in 2020 compared to 2019. But it’s a fast-moving target.
There is still a problem with public charging in most countries, however. The number of chargers is only a small part of the story, too. In the UK, a lot of the public charging network in key highway locations is run by Ecotricity’s Electric Highway, and a large percentage of that is either AC (equivalent to Level 2 in the US) or CHAdeMO DC, which is great if you have a Nissan Leaf or Lexus’s UX300e, but incompatible with most modern EVs that use CCS. There might be a lot of chargers, but they also might not be very good for topping up your car on a long journey, and a lot of them often don’t work, either.
Another thing that is highlighted by the journalistic article mentioned earlier is that there is national nuance in the EV debate. For example, a Bloomberg analyst complained that an hour of charging gave the Ford Mustang Mach E he had borrowed for review just three miles of range. But that is partly because the US has a 120V supply and just plugging into that is very much only an emergency solution, not how you should charge your car regularly. If you own a house with off-street parking in the UK, you would be a fool not to install 7kW home charging (it’s government subsidized, too), which will put about 30 miles in a Tesla Model 3 Long Range in an hour and easily get it to 100% overnight. The UK voltage is also 230V as standard, so plug-in chargers tend to deliver 2-3kW, which will also mean more than three miles of range an hour.
However, the biggest issue with the switch to EVs is really one of education and lifestyle change. Borrowing an EV for review and expecting to use the plug-in charger solely (called a “granny charger” in the UK for a reason) is not understanding the shift in habits required by electric ownership. Nor is judging an EV because you can’t just rock up to the nearest refueling station and put 300 miles of range in it in five minutes, like you always used to. If you buy an EV, you need a clear idea where your main charging will be. This is easy if you can install a wall charger. Then 99% of your journeys will be on home power.
That’s obviously not possible for everyone, but even for those who don’t have this (myself included), choosing an EV with enough range for your regular needs, and having a charging regime, are essential, at least for now. You need to have a much clearer idea of where you can recharge, and also how fast those recharging spots are. There are some great apps for that, although you may find you will need more than one.
You also need to get to know the real range of your vehicle, because the manufacturer ratings, whether EPA or WLTP, are overly optimistic, and very much so if you have to drive over about 50mph regularly. However, there are positives as well as negatives from all this. I had an issue driving the new Mini Electric back from its launch event recently because it didn’t appear to have quite enough range to get me home. I stopped in an unfamiliar spot only to find that the chargers my app had suggested were the wrong connector type (those dreaded Ecotricity CHAdeMO ones mentioned earlier). But nearby was a brand new IONITY installation, which just happened to be on “free vend”. So I recharged the car for nothing, turning a potential story of woe into a happy ending.
This is not to say that EVs are completely perfect, and everyone should buy one right now because charging isn’t really an issue. There is still a lot of work to be done – converting those Ecotricity Electric Highway stations all over to fast DC with CCS connectors, for example, which is likely to happen now that company is partnering with Gridserve. If you do a lot of miles around remote areas with poor public charging, an EV is probably not the best choice yet either.
The key thing is not whether EVs are good or bad overall, but that any prospective buyer does their research first and gets ready for the lifestyle change. Prepare yourself to charge mostly at home (if you can) or have a routine of places where you go to shop, exercise, or eat that also provide charging. Get to know the charging options on your regular routes too. If you buy an EV without this, it’s not really the EV’s fault if things don’t work out – it’s yours for not doing your homework first.